Broncos must fill gaps with free agents

Unless you considered the National Football League draft combine must-see TV and you monitored every 40-yard dash, bench pressing session and standing long jump recently in Indianapolis, there has been a serious lull in the professional football world.

That’s about to change.

Starting March 11, teams can start signing free agents.

In John Elway we trust in Colorado. Over the last couple of seasons, he has recruited Peyton Manning, Wes Welker, Louis Vasquez, Shaun Phillips and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, among others, for serious contributions to Bronco success.

What next as free agents start visiting?

First, check out who will likely be leaving via free agency, with the Broncos having 16 unrestricted free agents:

Wide receiver Eric Decker, who cost about $1.5 million last season, according to the Altius Directory and the NFL Players Association, is one of the top free agents and might command as much as $8 to $9 million.

Adios, Eric.

Running back Knowshon Moreno was on the books for $1.7 million. He will return only if he does it for roughly that same amount of money. With teams like the Oakland Raiders, Jacksonville Jaguars and Cleveland Browns each having between $50 and $65 million in salary cap space, someone will overspend for Moreno.

Adios, Knowshon.

Other starters who will likely be paid more than the Broncos are willing to pay include left guard Zane Beadles (the Dolphins of Richie Incognito fame are said to be interested) and defensive end Robert Ayers (more than $2 million of salary cap last season). Middle linebacker Paris Lenin was paid $1.5 million last season and, at 36, the oldest defensive starter in the league.

Those players are likely gone.

Among the free agents the Broncos need to retain are Phillips, who led the team with 10.5 sacks after signing a one-year contract, and Rodgers-Cromartie, another one-year pact that resulted in one of the league’s top cornerback efforts.

Phillips was a huge bargain at $1 million and will command more money — but, because he is 33, not that much more.

Rodgers-Cromartie, like Decker, will be one of the top free agents at his position. Still, he has said he wants to return to Denver and the Broncos, always in need of corners, would be foolish not to go the distance.

Another free agent, Wesley Woodyard, cost Denver more than $3 million last season. He was injured while playing out of position at middle linebacker and never regained his form. If he comes back, it will be to a huge pay cut.

Other free agents who could return in reserve roles include safety Mike Adams, who stepped in as a starter when Rahim Moore went down, and wide receiver Andre Caldwell, a backup for (but not a replacement for) Decker.

From where I sit, Elway & Co. will need to replace Decker, Beadles, Ayers and Lenin in the starting lineup.

Moreno has already been replaced by Montee Ball.

The free agent parade to replace the dearly departed can actually start March 8, when clubs can officially contact agents and start discussions.

Among the free-agent wide receivers are Anquan Boldin of San Francisco, Hakeem Nicks of the New York Giants, Golden Tate of Seattle and Ted Ginn of Carolina. Boldin is 33, but can still play. He is intriguing because of the relatively short Manning window in Denver.

Free-agent guards include Travelle Wharton of Carolina and Geoff Schwartz of Kansas City. Wharton is the highest-rated guard available and Schwartz second-rated. Wharton is 33 (see Boldin above) and could prove to be a bargain. Schwartz will cost an arm and a leg.

Another highly rated guard is the infamous Incognito. Think he could bully in the Bronco locker room with Mr. Manning around?

Free-agent defensive ends abound. Greg Hardy of Carolina, Michael Johnson of Cincinnati, Brian Orakpo of Washington, Michael Bennett of Seattle, Justin Tuck of the Giants and Lamarr Houston of Oakland are all Pro Bowl types and relatively young. They will also be in demand. If the Broncos are to make a huge splash, this would seem to be the position.

As for middle linebacker, Denver plays it down because the Broncos play so much nickel defense, meaning the middle linebacker spends much of his time on the sideline. There also is very little available in free agency, with Karlos Dansby of Arizona, 32 years old, the top-rated player. D’Qwell Jackson, a starter in Cleveland, is due to visit Denver early in the week after two recent seasons of more than 150 tackles.

Denver fans might also see a variety of safeties in town, because there is plenty of talent. T.J. Ward of Cleveland, Donte Whitner or San Francisco and Jairus Byrd of Buffalo are the cream of the crop.

Yes, free agency is at hand. And for that, we all can be thankful.


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